Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Life in These United States: Film School

The Reeler's Vadim Rizov wrote a very nice editorial in the first issue of the Tisch Film Review about the commercial/industry leanings of the NYU film production curriculum. To his credit, Vadim does not lean too hard on the obvious - that film education devolves helplessly into vocational training for big studio filmmaking and its simulacra - and makes a pragmatic effort to propose changes that could inch NYU toward accommodating the concept of cinema as an art.

Vadim's article focuses on the production side of film studies. When I went to film school (UCLA in the late 70s), there was pretty much no connection between the production and critical studies wings of the film department. Critical studies was in the throes of converting over to the semiotic/structuralist/Marxist/feminist/psychoanalytic mindset, and was not especially interested in finding common ground even with traditional art scholarship, much less with filmmakers. And the production kids were pretty much hands-on, practical types - not necessarily a bunch of industry wannabes, but not inclined toward theory in any way. At that time, the production staff at UCLA skewed toward avant-garde, personal filmmaking; but production students, then and now, are driven types who band together and educate themselves on student film crews, and UCLA's loose structure left them to pursue their own agendas.

I'm sure things have changed a lot since then. My distinct impression is that "theory" has become much more flexible, accommodating, and open after those early years when it was preoccupied with infiltrating and taking over university departments. On the production side, I'm pretty sure that UCLA's beatnik vibe is long dissipated, and that the industry looms much larger in that part of academia.

Still, the separation of theory and practice in film education seems to linger. And I think there's something American about that bifurcation. Our culture is unusually suspicious of intellectualism, valuing instead common sense and a get-it-done pragmatism. As a result, our intellectual life is effectively shut up in the ivory tower. An American film student who wants to distribute his or her energies across the thinking/doing continuum is going to feel pressure from both sides of the divide to get off the fence and take sides. Europe doesn't seem to separate mind and body in so violent a fashion, and European filmmakers emerge from film schools with alluring tales of having immersed themselves in film culture.

Does this mean that Vadim and his ilk are wasting their time beating their heads against the wall of American culture? Not necessarily. Film schools talk a good game about being dedicated to art - maybe they can be guilt-tripped into instituting changes. The advocates of cinema art culture should realize that they are a minority trying to bend the majority to their will, rather than a grass-roots movement, and select their political tools accordingly.


David McDougall said...

When I was in college, I straddled 2 majors: Film Studies, which was something like the practical end of NYU Film School, with more emphasis on watching (older, classical Hollywood) films and breaking them down; and an interdisciplinary humanities program, in which I focused (among other things) on 20th century literature and philosophy. My joint thesis film aimed at being, essentially, a work of literary theory in film form. So this is familiar territory! One of the projects of my current work (blog included) is a more effective synthesis of these competing impulses.

Dan Sallitt said...

Dave - I sort of hovered between those two worlds myself in film school. It was a funny place to be: the production people had a limited interest in cinema history and almost no interest in art films; and the theory people were under pressure to renounce their film-buffery at that point in time. (One classmate told me that he had destroyed his written lists of the movies he'd seen six months into graduate school. Six months seemed to me to be the usual amount of time needed for that environment to effect a transformation.)

There are probably some backwaters of American film education where production people are forced through a serious examination of film culture, and encouraged to add to it. Where are these places? I'd like to know. Vadim pragmatically allowed that he didn't want to ban Field and McKee from film education, that he merely wanted to provide alternatives. But if you open the door to McKee and Field, they will eat the rest of your department in a few years, as sure as the turning of the earth. Really, it's much better all around to ban them, if you can get away with it; and my guess is that any interesting film production departments that may exist have done so.

David McDougall said...

I actually think where I went to school might well be one of those places. Most everyone there is neither a 'theory' nor a production person, per se; the focus is on cinema history and does include art films in a serious way. Production is integrated into this neoformalist approach (and doesn't bother with McKee + Field). Studying theory there means Eisenstein and Bazin, not Freud and feminism. My straddling was more a result of wanting to integrate philosophy ('theory' as opposed to film theory) with my neoformalist understanding of films and how they work.

So, I'll put in a pitch for my alma mater as one place that encourages cinephilia more than (or at least in tandem with) pre-professionality, and as a result produces the kind of filmmakers whose work I want to watch.

Joss Whedon has a great video on why Wesleyan is the best place to study film here.

Dan Sallitt said...

Jeanine Basinger is the big name there, right? Does she have a lot of influence?

David McDougall said...

Jeanine is the head of the department there. Other current faculty include Scott Higgins (introducing the Technicolor series at AMMI this weekend in association with his new book), Lisa Dombrowski (Sam Fuller book nearing completion), Richard Slotkin (Gunfighter Nation, among others), and Leo Lensing (lots of work on Fassbinder).

I'm not sure how to quantify 'influence,' but her students have incredible respect for the depth of her understanding of film and her ability to transmit that. I don't think she's that influential in academia, but her influence is certainly felt in the corners of Hollywood/Indiewood/etc infiltrated by the Wesleyan mafia.

In some ways, her areas of interest become areas of expertise for her students, which are then tools they refer back to as filmmakers...

Perhaps it's not on the same scale, but I'm reminded of Alexander Kojève's lectures on Hegel in France between the World Wars, in that his interpretations of Hegel formed the basis of his students' work in a variety of fields in a way that can be traced back to his teachings. It's no offense to Wesleyan film to say that Kojève is an extreme example: Kojève's students included Lacan, Sartre, Aron, Queneau, Merleau-Ponty, Bataille, and Andre Breton.